I went to lunch at Domino the other day right near my office in Santiago. There is a very large, fast moving waiter who works there. He has to run from the counter, across a busy pedestrian filled street and out onto the outdoor seating area to deliver food and clear tables. The other day, he was moving quickly to clean off a table so another set of diners could sit and a man carelessly stood up from his table without looking, knocking a few plates out of the waiters hand. It was clearly the diner’s fault. The waiter’s response? Something along the lines of “fuck your mother, you should look where you are going.” The diner’s response? I’m sorry.
A few weeks earlier, I was in a bar and a guy kept demanding faster service, even though the place was super busy. After he kept complaining, the waiter came over with his boss and the boss told the guy to leave.
Both of these scenes are so completely different from what we have in the US and I love it. In the US, in the first scenario, the waiter would have apologized profusely and the diner would have likely gotten angry at the waiter, potentially complaining to his manager. In the bar, the manager might have apologized and given the demanding customer a free drink.
I’ve seen it countless times in restaurants, shops and coffee shops. I’ve seen customers go off on service employees for having the audacity to make the customer wait 5 minutes instead of 3. Or having the audacity to make a simple mistake. And the employee can’t do anything or risk being fired.
So what explains the difference in reaction? It comes down to the fact that in the US we’ve bought into the philosophy that the customer is always right. In the most of the rest of the world, if you’re being an asshole, the service worker will tell you so. I’ve seen it in the UK, Europe and now Chile. It’s one of the worst parts of our culture and it wasn’t always that way. So how did we get there?
Back when companies started to grow and the franchise/chain model started to take over from small, family owned businesses, companies needed ways to make sure to standardize operations. They started to write company policies and employee handbooks. Instead of trusting their employees to make good, smart decisions on their own, they tried to commoditize the work and wrote black and white rules. One of them was that the customer is always right.
As this policy became the norm, many in the US started to respond to the new reality. They could act like assholes and treat employees like shit and still be right! They might even get rewarded with discounts and free dessert. As employees became commodities and realized that they had to sit back and take abuse from customers, they just sort of went back into themselves and stopped really caring about their jobs.
And can you blame them? Service jobs went from where one could think and make decisions to jobs where you had to suck up to people who treated you poorly and you couldn’t respond, no matter how irrational the customer was. Customers responded to the new policies and now we have spoiled, bratty customers who treat service workers like dogs and service workers who are little more than commodities. It’s sad.
It’s now bleeding over into non service workers too. I got an email from a customer today who took it as a personal affront that we had a specific part of our site designed in a different way than he would have preferred.
Obviously, not all people in the US treat service workers poorly. I bet its only 25-30%, but its a huge number. When I’m in the US and see behavior like that, I want to say something, but many times don’t. When I get back, I am going to make it a point to do it from now on. I encourage you to do it as well.
The customer is not always right. Sometimes he’s an asshole. And he deserves to be called on it.